As Latter-day Saints, we know that every sin, every heartache, and all suffering can be redeemed through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We also know that the Savior is the only way to find redemption from and through these things. But how does the atonement do this? And why is it the only way? Honestly, I don’t think we fully know. There are a number of LDS authors who have provided insights, but I don’t think any of their theories are definitive.
I would just like to talk for a moment about the penal-substitution and the debtor theories of the atonement, and why I don’t like them very much. I think they are certainly useful metaphors, but neither describe the way I experience the atonement in my life. Let me explain: the penal-substitution theory of the atonement is, as C.S. Lewis states it, “the one about our being let off because Christ has volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us.” Every sin as a certain amount of suffering attached to it as punishment. Either we can suffer it ourselves, or Christ can suffer it on our behalf.
It’s basically the theory that operates in the short film “He Took My Licking.” In the story, a class of students are invited by the teacher to create a set of rules for the class. One of the rules stated that there would be no stealing, and the class agreed that the punishment for stealing would be to be “licked” 10 times with a stick. One day, a student reported that his lunch was stolen. The culprit was discovered to be a student so poor that he couldn’t afford his own lunch. It was also discovered that he couldn’t even afford to wear a shirt underneath his coat. The other students were moved with compassion, and begged the teacher not to enact the required punishment. But, “the rules are the rules,” and punishment must be inflicted. In the end, if my memory is correct, the person who’s lunch was stolen eventually volunteered to be licked instead, so that justice could be met while maintaining this poor student’s dignity.
The debtor theory of the atonement operates on a financial metaphor. It is best described in Boyd K. Packer’s talk, “The Mediator.” The basic story is that a young man incurred a debt, and instead of working to pay off the debt, he squandered his time. When the creditor asked for the debt to be collected, the young man couldn’t repay, and was about to be imprisoned as a result. However, a third party (the mediator) offered to pay the debtor’s debt, and then arranges new, more merciful terms on the debtor’s behalf.
Why don’t I like these theories? Well, for a number of reasons. First, it doesn’t particularly make sense. As C.S. Lewis says, “If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead?” We as human beings have the capacity to forgive others freely. Eugene England, a Latter-day Saint scholar, says is best: “It is a very disquieting notion that God should be bound to an unfortunate situation and in a way that men clearly are not. In human experience, we continually are able as men to forgive each other without satisfaction and yet with redemptive effect.” He concludes: “There is no reason to imagine God being unable to forgive.”
The Savior Himself recognized the genuine human capacity to forgive debts without recompense, as illustrated in His parable that depicts a king who, “moved with compassion,” forgave his servant a debt too large for his servant to pay (Matt. 18:27). He demanded no prior recompense, and did not feel beholden to some abstract sense of “justice” that would forbid him from forgiving the debt. Merciful forgiveness without recompense is commendable. It is a virtue. And yet, God Himself is unable to do it? Richard Williams often expresses it this way: “I just don’t like the idea of a God who is a nice enough guy, but his hands are tied.” The Lord declares his unabridged capacity to forgive to Joseph Smith: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10).
We find in the parable of the prodigal son another example of unqualified forgiveness. A man who had squandered his inheritance experienced a change of heart which brought him to return to his father’s house, and “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The father did not demand payment, compensation, or suffering from anyone before inviting his lost son into his home. If this is, as I believe, partly a metaphor of our return to our heavenly home, this certainly does not square with the image of a Father who demands recompense as a prerequisite to forgiveness.
The Book of Mormon itself, if you read it carefully, seems to reject this interpretation. Amulek explained to the Zoramites, “Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered” (Alma 34:11–12). As Amulek pointed out, the Nephite legal code (and he makes a point of saying that it is a righteous set of laws) did not allow for vicarious punishment. It doesn’t make sense, nor does it seem right, to think that justice has somehow been satisfied when someone other than the perpetrator has suffered. I think Alma’s comment indicates that he was offering an alternative to the penal-substitution theory of the atonement in Alma 34 (even though we most often read it as if it were talking about the penal-substitution theory).
So, in conclusion, the penal-substitution theory is problematic because vicarious punishment doesn’t really make sense, and both the penal-substitution theory and the debtor theory are problematic because it doesn’t really make sense to claim that God, who is simply an exalted person like ourselves, is unable to forgive others the same way we are.
One Alternative (among many)
While neither we nor God are prevented from forgiving others of their wrongdoing, there are 2 things that keep us from returning home to God. (1) First, we can’t change our own hearts. Once we have been mired in sin, our view of the world, our desires, and our hopes become tainted. And we can’t fix that alone. (2) Second, once our minds and our hearts are enlightened by the Spirit, we can’t feel good about the bad things we’ve done. This guilt also keeps us from turning to God.
First, the scriptures are clear that it is Christ and His atonement, communicated via the Spirit, that transforms us into new creatures. Let’s use the story of the prodigal son as an example (with ourselves being the son and Heavenly Father being the father). We often think of the atonement in these terms: the father wants to embrace the son, but he must first check that recompense has been made, and once he assures that the proper suffering has occurred (either on the son’s part or Christ’s), and only then embraces the son with open arms.
In contrast, let’s rewind, and imagine the son mired in bad habits, squandering his fortune. That is where the atonement works. The atonement of Christ, mediated through the Spirit, is what changes the son’s heart, helps him abandon his habits, and return to his father. I’m sure that being broke, miserable, and homeless probably acted as a catalyst that prompted him to ask God for help. But he couldn’t change his heart by himself. Alma explains that Christ’s sacrifice “bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.” It’s the change that occurred in the son between the moment he’s broken and alone and the moment he’s in his father’s arms. That is the miracle of the atonement. It changes our hearts, and makes us into the kind of people who will walk into Father’s arms.
This is how I experience the atonement in my own life. When I think of what Christ has done for me, I don’t think, “Thank you, Christ, for appeasing the demands of justices so God can now accept me.” Although I can conceptually imagine that legalistic process occurring, I don’t experience it that way. Rather, I think, “Thank you, Christ, for making me a new person.” Personal transformation is what I experienced.
So what about all this talk about justice and mercy, etc.? Well, that leads us to the second thing that we can’t do for ourselves. Once enlightened by the Spirit, we can’t feel good about wrongs we’ve committed. Moroni illustrates this principle clearly:
Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws? Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell. (Moro. 9:3–4)
I think we’ve all experienced this kind of guilt. It keeps us from repenting, from changing, because we don’t even feel worthy of God’s forgiving grace and mercy. I think that the atonement of Christ is a response to this. Eugene England explains:
[The Atonement] is not necessary because of some eternal structure of justice in the universe outside man which demands payment from man for his sins, nor of some similar structure within the nature of God. The Atonement is absolutely necessary because of the nature of man himself… The problem is not that God’s justice must be satisfied (or the universe’s) but that man’s own sense of justice demands satisfaction. When it creates a barrier to repentance that barrier must be broken through… [I]t can only be broken though by the powerful persuasion of a kind of love which transcends men’s sense of justice without denying it—the kind of love that Christ was uniquely able to manifest in the Atonement. …
We do not repent in order that God will forgive us and atone for our sins, but rather God atones for our sins and begins the process of forgiveness … in order that we might repent and thus bring to conclusion the process of forgiveness. And the center of the experience somehow is Christ’s ability to break through the barrier of justice, in those men who can somehow freely respond, with the shock of eternal love expressed in Gethsemane.
In other words, Christ’s sacrifice is necessary in order for us to forgive ourselves and feel comfortable in God’s presence. Why? I don’t fully know. But I like this better than the penal-substitution theory, because this places the emphasis on the experience of personal transformation and forgiveness, rather than a speculative, legalistic framework of abstract ideas. Rather than spending time fleshing out the details of the legal code of heaven, we can simply describe our own experience with Christ (which usually doesn’t entail any of that).
Why it Doesn’t Matter
In conclusion, I don’t really like the penal-substitution theory of the atonement, or the debtor theory of the atonement. They are both too legalistic and speculative for my tastes. Besides, I don’t experience the atonement that way, I experience it in terms of personal transformation and forgiveness. However, I don’t believe I know for sure either way. And I don’t think access to the atonement requires that we have the right ideas about it. I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said:
The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. … Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important those theories are. … But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. …
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.1
In other words, it doesn’t matter what we believe about how the atonement works nearly as much as it matters that we kneel, pray, and ask God for forgiveness. Trying to figure out the legal code of heaven (if it even exists) isn’t necessary for salvation. I don’t think it’s wrong to wonder about these things, though, because I think that the metaphors and theories we use to describe the atonement can affect our interpretation of our own experiences.